5 Reasons Korean Skin Care Retailers Hooked US Consumers

I got interested in skin care several months before my wedding when I was trying to make sure I looked my best for the big day. At the time, like many American women, my typical routine included cleansing my face and applying moisturizer or sunscreen. I ordered all sorts of products from Sephora, trying (and mostly failing) to buy the best at a reasonable price point.

One day, I was scrolling through Facebook and noticed an ad for a skin care retailer called Peach & Lily, which imports and sells Korean skin care products in the United States. The company’s founder, Alicia Yoon is Korean-American and promotes the 10-step skin care routine followed by most Korean women. Ten steps seemed a little daunting, but I was fascinated by her business and the way she marketed her brand and products.

I ordered my starter kit and was hooked. Not only did the products work extremely well, but the price point was much lower than most of my favorite American and European products. Some of the products, such as essences, ampules, and sheet masks, felt foreign to me, but Peach & Lily has a great blog with step by step advice on how to get the most out of each use.

Before I knew it, I was shopping around on some of the other e-commerce sites selling Korean products to American consumers, such as Soko Glam, Memebox, and Momomango. I could see that I was not the only American woman obsessed with Korean skin care, and I wanted to understand why we were so enticed. In my view, here’s why Korean skin care has had so much success with American consumers.

  1. Focus on prevention and self-care

The Korean skin care regimen focuses on prevention and maintenance rather than treating problems such as dry skin, acne, or pigmentation as they arise. In a Byrdie article Alicia Yoon claims that Korean women approach skin care the same way many western women approach diet and exercise: it’s all about living a healthy lifestyle. In the same way many American women choose to forgo gluten, dairy, or red meat, Korean women see their skin care routines as part of a holistic healthy lifestyle. This attitude resonates with American consumers because they can see the benefits that come from diet and exercise habits.

  1. Perceptions of “all natural”

Much of Korean beauty culture aligns with hanbang medicinal theories that focus on using natural and herbal ingredients such as green tea, bamboo, and ginseng. Looking at Korean products, you will also notice ingredients as snail mucin and placenta. While some of these ingredients may be a bit “out there” for the typical American consumer, the perception that most Korean products are “all natural” has been an overall win with westerners concerned with the use of parabens and phthalates in domestic products.

  1. Low price point 

Because of Korean women’s obsession with skin care, there are many more brands, retailers, and products than there are in the United States. The market is saturated (with somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 unique brands), so competition for the newest, greatest product is fierce, and companies must compete on price more than they do in the west. For example, an American consumer might pay $60 to $100 for a luxury American moisturizer but only $20 to $40 for a similar Korean product. These prices would be even lower in Korea, since import taxes are incorporated into the prices abroad.

  1. Fierce competition fuels innovation

Competition among skin care brands also fuels innovation. In addition to price competition, Korean skin care companies must constantly innovate to keep customers happy. Peach & Lily’s Alicia Yoon told Fast Company, “In Korea, message boards are filled with comments like ‘The active ingredient is 62% concentrated at this price point, but this one is 70% concentrated at this price point, and it’s got more natural preservatives.’”

R&D is fast-paced. Korean brand TonyMoly brings products from idea to market in just six weeks, making it like the Zara of Korean skin care.

  1. Government assistance

The Korean government is one of the country’s skin care industry’s primary allies. According to The Cut, the Korean FDA plays a large role in supporting skin care exports by providing tax breaks to export-only firms and setting up a fund to help Korean companies protect their brands abroad.

The government also has a close relationship with the Korean International Trade Association (KITA), which assists skin care companies by introducing them to international distributors and coaching them on appropriate packaging and pricing for foreign consumers. For example, in Korea, many products are packaged in colorful cases covered with cartoon characters. KITA has helped these companies understand how to package products for American consumers so that they connote the all-natural ingredients they include.

Looking ahead…

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend three days in Seoul and walk around the city’s Myeongdong district. While restaurants and bars in the area might close at midnight, the skin care shops (there were often several per block) were open all night. Each shop was lined with colorful, reasonably-priced products, ranging from eye cream to foot masks, and clerks were trained to explain the benefits to tourists in Chinese and English.

Although the domestic market may be saturated, the Korean skin care industry is clearly alive and well. As many companies shift their focus to foreign markets, I can’t wait to see what new innovations they bring to the world of beauty.

By: Ann Marshall Tilton